I love cycling, and I love writing about cycling, but I also know my audience. The names Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot probably don’t mean much to many of you reading this, but they are rock stars in France. Before Stage 8 of the Tour de France on Saturday, no one drew louder cheers from the crowd.
Pinot is France’s best hope of winning France’s first maillot jaune in 34 years. Alaphilippe is one of the best racers in the world, full-stop, and by taking the yellow jersey twice so far — winning it, losing, and winning it back, all within the first week — he has enthralled his country.
Pinot could barely get out from under his team bus awning for a short test ride before the up-and-down stage from Mâcon to Saint-Étienne could start. He was quickly mobbed by kids seeking autographs, reporters and cameras jostling the kids to get a second of his attention, and lots of miscellaneous gawkers.
Fans screamed Alaphilippe’s name as he made his way up to the stage for the Tour’s daily ceremonial sign-in. Not only is he a brilliant, instinctive rider, he radiates charm. All the French writers love to use the word panache. He took the yellow jersey after Stage 3 with a long solo effort to win, then damn near killed himself trying to defend it on a mountain top finish on Stage 6 where he fell just seconds short on the general classification to Giulio Ciccone.
Both riders are in peak form, with massive pressure on them. And that’s what made their breakaway together Saturday so freakin’ cool.
With 12 kilometers to go in a 200-kilometer stage, Alaphilippe broke from the peloton to try and chase down Thomas de Gendt, a Belgian breakaway artist who rode at the front of the stage all day. Only Pinot dared to take Alaphilippe’s wheel, and the two quickly fell into rhythm together, despite riding for different teams and with different individual goals.
Together, they whittled down a gap of more than a minute to mere seconds, swapping turns pulling for the other. Only De Gendt could claim a better day, holding off the charging duo for a six-second stage win — his second Tour stage victory ever, and first since 2016.
De Gendt’s effort was magnificent, but Pinot and Alaphilippe shook up the Tour. Alaphilippe finished third to take back the yellow jersey that Ciccone wore for two stages, now with a 23-second overall lead. As a result, a Frenchman will wear the maillot jaune on Bastille Day for the first time since 2014, and will likely retain it until the true mountain stages begin.
Pinot finished second on the stage to move up to third overall on the general classification. But among riders who are considered capable of winning the yellow jersey — i.e., the best pure climbers — he is No. 1 at 19 seconds ahead of 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas.
Notably, Alaphilippe seemed to let Pinot beat him at the line. The first three placings on every stage of the Tour de France get time bonuses — 10 seconds for first, six for second, and four for third. Alaphilippe, knowing he won’t be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris, appeared to give Pinot an extra two seconds for the greater good of their mother country. (Alaphilippe is normally a much better finisher than Pinot). It’s only fair, too, considering how much Pinot helped Alaphilippe.
Every bit of Stage 8 — the teamwork, the audacity, the implications — was superb. It was the Tour de France at its absolute best, and kudos are well-deserved all around, from the riders to the race directors who have designed a good first week of the Tour for once. And the best part is, with a Frenchman in the best position to win a yellow jersey for the country in — god, who the hell knows how long — and two deliriously difficult weeks ahead, this race should keep getting better.
If Pinot somehow holds off a deep field of yellow jersey contenders (Chris Froome fans: shut up) Saturday’s stage could be remembered for a long, long time. Allez.